FOR the second time in a month the federal government has undertaken a major relief effort to help Americans cope with natural disaster. Within hours after the earthquake, several military units were providing aid in the San Francisco area or were on their way.
Top federal officials, headed by Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner, flew to the Bay Area Tuesday night to head the assessment of what assistance the federal government should provide.
On the surface the immediate relief task appeared quite different from what confronted government and private agencies a month ago, when Hurricane Hugo struck the Carolinas. Hugo killed or injured a relatively small number of people but produced broad bands of damage to buildings and trees. The most immediate need was to reopen roads closed by falling trees.
By contrast the California quake produced far more injuries and deaths, and a pattern of large areas without major damage but pockets of what eyewitness Hank Henson of Berkeley called ``isolated catastrophic incidents,'' such as the collapse of a major Oakland freeway. The most immediate need was to help the injured.
The fact that the California quake had come so quickly on the heels of the hurricane raised immediate questions of whether America's disaster relief structure - which depends first on voluntary agencies, then on the federal government - could respond sufficiently.
FEMA officials had said their agency was ``stretched to the limit'' by Hugo. But they indicated they had sufficient personnel on the West Coast to deal with the current situation.